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‘No training, no money, no hope, no way of getting out’

This piece originall appeared in the Financial Times.

A huge police presence on Baltimore streets enforced a curfew on Tuesday night. Officers released smoke grenades to disperse protesters ©Reuters

Standing on a street corner where the worst riots to hit Baltimore in half a century erupted on Monday, four black friends are incensed about the death of Freddie Gray who lost his life last week from spinal injuries suffered in police custody.

As police helicopters hovered over the inner-city ghetto of Sandtown, the unemployed youths warn that more violence will flare if prosecutors do not indict police officers over the death of Gray, who was the latest African-American man to die because of alleged police brutality.

“If they don’t get convicted, all hell will break lose,” says Chris Jafson, before his friend Kare Smith, 21, chimes in that “they will have guns and cocktail bombs”.

Many people gathered in the area just blocks from where Gray lived say his death was the spark for the worst riots since the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. They say that the spark ignited mounting grievances over alleged police brutality and appalling economic conditions in the area.

“What they did to Freddie Gray gave us an excuse to express ourselves,” explains one of the four young men. “We were waiting for a way to express ourselves.”

The street leading from the corner to the housing projects where Gray lived paints a portrait of urban decay, with many houses either boarded up or left in a derelict condition. Residents say the area is rife with drug-related crime of the kind depicted in the television series The Wire.

One building contractor who works in the area explains how he has to pay the man who runs the drug dealers $100 occasionally to ensure his properties are protected. “I know who it was [on Monday]. It was all the crack heads, the drug addicts and the kids,” he says.

Baltimore has been trying to turn around a story of decline and depopulation, having lost nearly a third of its residents since 1960 when it was the sixth-largest US city. In recent years it has attracted a younger, well-educated population and the jobless rate has fallen to 8.2 per cent from more than 12 per cent after the financial crash.

Still, it ranks as the 12th most unequal among 50 cities tracked by the Brookings Institution. Despite a broader economic recovery, there has been little sign of progress in significant parts of the city — particularly poor black areas such as those where the violence occurred.

Research from the Justice Policy Institute and the Prison Policy Initiative shows that 45 per cent of the population in Greater Mondawmin — where the riots started — aged between 16 and 64 were not employed between 2008 and 2012. Figures for the area where Gray lived reveal an even higher rate of people not employed, at 52 per cent, with 33 per cent of local properties abandoned.

Minutes after urging agitated young men to be more peaceful, Bishop Douglas Miles, co-founder of Build, a group that strives to rebuild neighbourhoods, says the community is “under siege from social issues and police brutality”.

Bishop Miles says Baltimore has ignored the inner-city, and instead poured money into downtown areas that are more appealing to tourists and businesses. One big problem facing the community, he adds, is that many men are convicted felons meaning they have little chance of finding jobs.

Sitting on the steps of an empty house, Mark Cockey, an unemployed man in his late 50s, recalls the riots that flared after Martin Luther King was killed. He says the situation now is not much different from that tumultuous era because the “same basic set of circumstances . . . is repeating itself”.

He says police for years employed a zero-tolerance policy that resulted in many men going to jail for “nonsense” crimes such as for loitering. “It was the same when we were teenagers. Nothing has changed . . . [there is] no training, no money, no hope, no way of getting out of where you are”.

Much of the focus this week has been on the fact that the rioters were teenagers. Latoria Powell, a single mother, says it was not surprising that the youths were frustrated, explaining that they have no outlets as even recreational centres that existed before are closing for budget reasons.

“We have no resources, we have nothing, we have no community centres. You know how kids used to come and play in the rec centres. We don’t have that so there is an outcry,” she says.

As the riots erupted on Monday, Baltimore police urged parents to take their kids off the streets. But Cynthia Swann, one of many volunteers trying to clear the area on Tuesday, says the crime and economic conditions in the area mean that many of the youths do not have parents to help them.

“Their parents are in jail, their parents are on drugs . . . some of these kids are only doing what they’re doing because they have got to eat,” says Ms Swann. “We don’t have to go across the sea to save children. There are children right here in Baltimore city that need to be saved.”

As riot police cordoned off one block near a looted CVS convenience store, a single father called Jay says the riots were just the “symptom of the cancer” which was police brutality and “zero economic opportunity”.

“You tell me in a 30-block radius how many jobs are available in this area that make more than $20,000 a year,” he says. “You can’t feed a family, you can barely feed yourself on $20,000 a year.”

Jay, 37, accuses the police of being very aggressive, explaining that he has been arrested several times while walking to the supermarket to buy food for his son — a situation that is having a traumatic effect on his child.

“My seven-year-old son woke up this morning crying and said ‘I don’t want to be black any more’ . . . he has seen them draw guns on me.”

This piece originall appeared in the Financial Times.

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter at @DimiSevastopulo, Sam Fleming at @Sam1Fleming, and the Financial Times at @FT.

Posted in JPI in the News, Criminal Justice News

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